October 28, 2019

The power and responsibility of Open Source Intelligence

About the episode:

Effective analysis of publicly available information is critical in countering terrorist use of the internet. But just as open source intelligence can used as a tool for good, would-be terrorists can also exploit the data to plan attacks. Join Adam Hadley and Lorand Bodo as they speak to Benjamin Strick, an open-source investigator for BBC Africa Eye, Nico, a.k.a ‘DutchOSINTGuy’, a former police officer in the Netherlands, and Terry Pattar, who runs the intelligence unit at the security analysis firm Jane’s 360. This episode explores how intrigue and curiosity helps these experts infiltrate online extremist networks, where messages of propaganda and hate and being spread. Be warned – tread carefully when entering the world of OSINT and the dark web. Because when you’re looking at terrorists, they could be looking right back at you.

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Episode analysis:

Open source intelligence plays a major role in countering the terrorist use of the internet. Publicly available information on the internet – when analysed effectively – can however also be used for nefarious purposes: would-be terrorist actors can use open source data such as Google Earth images to plan attacks on military installations. 

The concept of open-source intelligence (OSINT) is a concept that dates back at least a century, for example with the US establishing its Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Station to understand the information contained in media sources abroad shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The sort of ingenious, painstaking, and creative work carried out had a huge impact: during the Second World War, the Allies were able to pinpoint which railway bridges in France had been successfully bombed by tracking the price of oranges in Paris.

The practice of OSINT brings together a number of disciplines and trades and when used effectively can be instrumental in informing strategic intelligence and ongoing counter-terrorism operations. However, OSINT has often ended up as the poor cousin of the intelligence community. The Aspin-Brown Commission of 1996 noted that access to OSINT was “severely deficient”, while the 9/11 Commission, almost a decade later, recommended the creation of a dedicated OSINT service. The Iraq Intelligence Commission reinforced this point by pushing for the creation of an open-source directorate at the CIA. So it’s really only in the last 15 years that the US, for example, has properly set its house in order in relation to open-source intelligence. Much of this also depends on empowering analysts to apply more rigorous analytical methods in making intelligence assessments based on OSINT and all-source analysis.

One of the challenges faced by OSINT professionals is that the “information explosion” of the modern tech era has made human analysis more difficult . The critical part of the exercise is not so much the collection of the data, much of which can of course be automated, but the inspection and meaningful analysis of it, which even now relies on human input to understand nuance, context, and strategic impact. A machine can harvest a thousand newspaper articles and identify a dozen key words but only a trained and experienced human brain can model this information and place the words in their meaningful context.

There are also critical concerns about privacy, surveillance, and human rights. Have individuals consented to having their data viewed and stored by investigators and intelligence analysts? Do citizens understand what information about them is held? Do they know how to seek redress, or to request its removal or deletion? How do OSINT professionals ensure that their work obeys the law?

For answers to these questions, listen to this latest episode of the Tech Against Terrorism podcast.